Murray Lyons

January seems a long time ago but that’s when my initial column for Pipeline Online was published where I questioned the growing body of commentary on so-called progressive news sites such as CBC Digital on the need for Canadians to move away from natural gas for home and business heating.

The sheer scope of such an enterprise versus a program to better insulate houses, apartment towers and business structures of all kinds suggests a form of wishful thinking, in my view.

Natural gas is not easily displaced in the energy mix. In a brand new home with a high efficiency (97 per cent efficient furnace), a homeowner in Saskatchewan can get through a normal winter on about $600 worth of gas. Natural gas is cheap here and in Alberta because of being so close to the source gas fields.

On average in Canada, gas is cheaper than any other way of heating at $7.71 a gigjoule, according to the Canadian Gas Association (CGA) compared to $32.22 for electricity, $33.88 for propane and $32.86 for heating oil (still used in Atlantic Canada).

According to fact sheets on the CGA website there are 7.3 million customers for natural gas in Canada or two-thirds of all Canadians. That includes homes, offices and other business users.

Across Canada, there is a network of 573,000 kilometres of gas transmission and service pipelines operated by companies that are members of the CGA. These pipelines range from high pressure transmission lines to low pressure lines that enter homes and businesses.

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Saskatchewan is one of the most piped-in provinces in the country thanks to a long history of governments supporting and subsidizing the network developed over the past 60 plus years by the Crown corporation, SaskEnergy.

The company’s subsidiary TransGas operates 15,000 kilometres of transmission lines plus a series of salt caverns that keep gas supplies available all winter as well as 71,000 kilometres of lines that distribute the gas to homes and businesses in 337 communities. The gas caverns ensure that the new gas generating facilities built near North Battleford, Swift Current and Moose Jaw in the past decade have enough gas to get through record cold spells like we had some days this past winter.

What is even more unique in this province is a rural distribution system that serves more than 30,000 rural customers that was built as a policy decision of a Conservative (Grant Devine) government. While this definitely constituted a subsidy for rural Saskatchewan in that the capital cost of $314 million (1980s dollars) has not been repaid in full and never will be, but farmers who invested as well to be on the system benefit greatly.

Not only are farmers on this rural gas network able to heat their houses and machine shops with gas but they have a big advantage on years when crop conditions mean grain has to put through the dryer.

SaskEnergy estimates that natural gas, once the capital contribution has been accounted for by the farmer, costs about one third of that of propane. So, farmers who participated in the 1980s rural Saskatchewan gas pipeline buildout are likely not regretting their decision.

Critics of natural gas as a prime heating source point out that transmission, distribution and storage of natural gas contributes about 11 megatonnes of greenhouse gases out of Canada’s total GHG emissions. The big knock is methane escaping within this network as methane is considered much worse than carbon dioxide.

Despite the technical hurdles, the CGA has committed to helping Canada meet its 2050 net zero emission targets. In a press release last November, the CGA and its members committed to technical solutions and energy efficiency to produce a lower-emissions energy system.

A recent CBC Digital story noted there is a divide in Canada between environmental activists who use the phrase energy transition to mean a full transition away from all fossil fuels to renewables whereas the oil and gas sector uses the phrase “energy transition” to signify how natural gas can displace coal in jurisdictions such as Alberta and Saskatchewan where coal was the leading source of electrical generation.

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The CGA has argued for grants for homeowners and commercial building owners to refit structures.

Although some of its contributors are partial to the “go electric and go renewable” argument, CBC Television did an interesting story on an architect in Ottawa who helped oversee the retrofitting of a 1960s era apartment block which essentially put a blanket of insulation and fireproof materials both inside and out, such that the apartment suites would retain heat for four days if power from the grid were to be lost.

Way back in the 1970s, a house was built in Regina which demonstrated the right kind of blanket insulation in a double wall system that barely needed much energy at all to sustain heat in the winter. One of the problems in the four decades since the Saskatchewan Research Council helped fund that house is that natural gas has been cheap enough that builders have not added features such as additional cladding to the outside walls of new builds in order to keep heating costs to a minimum.

Giving incentives to builders and homeowners to construct better insulated houses would be a more practical move than offering incentives to convert a natural gas-fired home to an electrical heat pump.

Again, to go back to CBC, the network recently showed a renovation from the Lower Mainland of BC to a heat pump model. That is one of the places where a heat pump would make sense especially when it can be reversed for air conditioning in the summer. Last year, I was astonished to learn how few houses in Vancouver are equipped with air conditioning and how this could be deadly in a heat wave as was experienced there last year.

I don’t want to stand accused of being a shill for the natural gas industry, but it appears to me that logic has gone out the window when government policy puts so much emphasis on electricity being the answer for “green” updates to home and business space heating. Energy should not be wasted whether it is at the gas fields where natural gas comes out of the ground or in the distribution system to end users.

Finally, let us consider whether it is asking too much for one sector – home heating – to be part of a massive overhaul of its energy use at the same time as individuals reassess what they drive in the years to come.

The electrical utilities in Canada are beginning to look closely how they can handle a grid at the neighborhood level that would be expected to handle both increased electrical use for heating and charging vehicles in the new petrol-less world that is coming to a car dealership near you.

There is worry the grid at the local level might not be able to handle a situation where 20 homeowners on a block are all recharging their Teslas or electric F-150s.

I don’t doubt electrical vehicles are coming and they will come down in price despite their reliance on more expensive mined materials in their batteries and electric motors.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we can afford as individuals to fund a green revolution in the way we heat our indoor spaces at the same time as we see a revolution taking place in the way our vehicles are fueled.

We aren’t California, where parts of the state are finding more and more homeowners who are going off grid because private utilities can charge up to $100,000 to string a line into a rural acreage. There, the option of wind and solar plus a large lithium storage battery in the garage makes sense.

Going off the grid in this part of Canada is an option as well but in a place such as Saskatchewan where legacy infrastructure investment in rural electrical grids, and especially the natural gas network, you would be ill advised to become a “first mover” in a mistaken belief that is the best thing you can do to help the planet.

 

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  • 0019 Jerry Mainil Ltd hiring dugout
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